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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

An "I" for an "I"

An “I” for an “I”

Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

Oftentimes as leaders we must do some unpleasant things … things that keep us up at night.

It’s our job. 

One of these unpleasantries is “pulling the trigger” on staff members who are not pulling their weight.  A method for doing so, one that I have been philosophically wrestling with recently, is our topic this week – An “I” for an “I.”  

I’m interested in how this approach resonates with principle-centered leaders. 

Maybe with this week's five-minute read, I’ll spark a bit of a debate between those more in sync with the leadership paradigm of ethical relativism and others more in tune with the black and white perspectives of moral absolutism (for those who enjoy such constructs). One can only hope.

Anyhow ...

I had to pull the trigger a few times in my career; it was uncomfortable. 

I was trained to do it with speed, dispatch, and calculable forethought.  I didn’t enjoy my training or the experience.  To this day, the thought of firing, or encouraging the resignation of,  someone who has a mortgage, a family to support, pride to maintain, and a reputation to uphold, is unsettling for me. 

Maybe I’m just a softy.

Termination, I realize, is a burden that leadership must bear in order to protect students from educational neglect. 

I get that.   Research demonstrates that having two bad teachers in a row adversely affects a child’s future (Peske & Haycock, 2006).  Having one is pretty inexcusable, in and of itself.  It reflects poorly on leadership.

Regarding the mechanics involved in pulling the trigger – Those who have done so might agree that firing those who are jerks is actually easier than firing those who are nice, yet incompetent.  The latter are oftentimes bad fits for circumstance –  some shouldn’t have made it through pre-service education; others have been ill assigned.  Most are nice, from what I have found, which makes everything even more difficult.

In the worst-case scenario, we, OURSELVES, made the mistake of hiring incompetent folks in the first place.  Some of us do so because of teacher shortages in certain content areas; others of us just get busy and thus, sloppy.  We create the problem. 

Once leaders set in motion a chain of events by hiring those not up-to-snuff, we bring about nothing but dissatisfaction and heartache.  Newcomers to our schools begin to sink roots in our communities -- they shop at our stores, attend our churches, and support our Little Leagues.  They bring their own children to school; their kids play with our kids. Some even play Frisbee in the dog park and volunteer at the holiday soup kitchen.  However, once we find that they are incompetent or ill suited for their roles, we have to clean up our own mess, at their expense. They need to go.

In these instances, nice guys really DO finish last. 

The process of removal, of pulling the trigger itself, is certainly not for the faint of heart.  The “how” of the process has caught my attention … at least to the degree that I’m questioning one such method -- a cookbook for firing those who are incompetent (nice or not), long a part of administrative lore – An “I” for an “I.”  

It’s nasty business.  It’s not nice.  Yet, it may be necessary, as we fight to liberate our children from mediocrity and poor performance in the classroom.  

Wars aren't pleasant, are they?

An "I" for an "I" involves a leader’s turning an employee’s INCOMPETENCE (“I”) into INSUBORDINATION (“I”).  It is managerial hardball, played barehanded. Only one team gets to bat.  Only one team gets the “out.”

The model suggests that when leaders are dealing with a situation of incompetence, they may address it as such if they wish to be considerate about it, but simultaneously, they begin setting the stage to reframe anything short of "immediate turn-around" as Insubordination.  Once complete, termination becomes much easier.

Justification for this approach rests upon the assumption that removals based on incompetence might be too cumbersome, too risky of being defined as subjective, and too prone to potential reversal.

The suggested ethical justification for An “I” for an “I” purportedly pertains to higher-order considerations for children enrolled in the classrooms of those incompetent, and thus deserving of “quick work” on the removal.

In the playbook for An “I” for an “I,” school leaders would:

1.     Consult with a school attorney and the superintendent before doing ANYTHING.
2.     Establish standards of performance for the employee using behaviorally measurable criteria. 
3.     Advise the employee of these criteria.
4.     Direct the employee, both verbally and in writing, to adhere to those standards of performance within a specified time frame.
5.     Allow reasonable administrative support (and time) for the employee to reach those standards of performance, those that could be expected of one similarly certificated.
6.     Measure whether or not those standards were attained in the time period.
7.     Next, do one of two things: (a) witness immediate improvement or more than likely (b) document instances of performance NOT meeting those standards.
8.     And ... since a directive was given to perform up to certain criteria, the failure by the employee to do so is, in effect, INSUBORDINATION.
9.    If this determination is made, consult appropriately with those who review your processes (and your documentation) before pulling any triggers (In other words, CYA … “Call Your Attorney”). 
10.  Pull the trigger if needed*.

*As lore suggests, oftentimes after an “I” becomes an “I,” the need to “fire” is actuality avoided, as those about to be affected pen a quick letter of resignation, while all involved parties promise “no name calling” as desks are cleared and keys are returned. 

All’s good, right? 

Well, not so much, if another community’s children get your castaway ... not so much if that person has a family to support.

You know, as an alternative to this approach, we as leaders could ensure that we are doing our own better-than-incompetent jobs of hiring folks in the first place, avoiding all of this hardball and consternation.


Peske, H. G., & Haycock, K. (2006). Teaching inequality: How poor and minority students are shortchanged on teacher quality. Washington, D.C.: The Education Trust.


Dr. Ryan Donlan is interested in your thoughts, opinions, and feelings.  Please share your perspectives on the ethics involved in An “I” for an “I,” by contacting him at or (812) 237-8624.  Thanks for taking 5 minutes for a read!

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